4 August 2020

Is it time to disband the Scottish Conservatives?


Any reader exercised by the fortunes of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party is necessarily interested in the vicissitudes, dramas and dilemmas of the past. In such a spirit let us cast our minds back to 2011, when two candidates vied to succeed Annabel Goldie, the well-respected leader of what was then thought to be a spent force. Ruth Davidson, outwardly an unexpected Tory, was in fact reassuringly traditional in her mildly modernising, psephologically bold optimism.

Her rival, Murdo Fraser, by contrast looked and sounded like a Scottish Conservative politician invented by a novelist of fair-to-middling ability and neutral-leaning-nationalist opinion. But Fraser’s proposals were genuinely explosive – too much so, in the end, for his electorate. They were rooted in pessimistic truths, and their conclusion was that the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party needed to be scrapped and replaced by a vehicle better fitted to Caledonian terrain.

Despite the support of a majority of Conservative MSPs, all of whom presumably looked forward to campaigning under a new, more specifically Scottish, centre-right banner, Fraser was rejected by members in favour of Davidson. The scattered but loyal adherents of Scottish Conservatism had opted to keep belting out the old song for another verse or two. They did so with what turned out to be unlooked for success.

The 2014 independence referendum benefited Davidson as much as the SNP, at the expense of the complacent and confused Scottish Labour Party. By summer 2015 Davidson was the leader of the Scots opposition, her momentum seemingly still unexhausted. In the deluge of the Brexit referendum, Davidson was arguably the most articulate of the counter-revolutionaries. Despite the loss of her cause and her southern admirer David Cameron as Prime Minister, her finest, most critical hour was yet to come. In the 2017 general election it was only Davidson’s Montrosian insurgency in Scotland that allowed Theresa May to retain any semblance of grip on power. The Scots Tories at Westminster now in theory had both moral and real power to shape events.

They proved quicker to boast of such power than to use it. The reinforced Scottish Tory contingent were not unanimous in their support of May’s compromise Brexit deal. One new MP, Douglas Ross, was among those who voted against it. When the next spate of chief-killing broke out in 2019, the Scots Tories at both parliaments failed to act concertedly to prevent what few of them desired, a Johnson UK ministry. Ruth Davidson supported Sajid Javid with arguments that savoured more of Marxist class solidarity than Conservative strategy.

Murdo Fraser was more intellectually consistent in his backing for another Scots Tory pessimist – or realist – Rory Stewart. Few Scots Tories seemed to count Michael Gove as Scottish at all, and Douglas Ross among others bowed to the inevitable in the form of the pantomime Englishman Boris Johnson.

To Davidson, the Borisian ascendancy and its accompanying purges became understandably intolerable. She left confusion and Jackson Carlaw as leader, in her place. Carlaw attempted to hold the line by conceding very few sincere syllables on any topic. The job of shepherding Scots Tories looked dismal during Carlaw’s stint, eventually too dismal even for him. The Tories are still theoretically the official opposition in Scotland (while Labour is led by a Yorkshireman) – which is to say that the SNP presently lacks any opposition at all.

At the time of writing it looks as if Douglas Ross is to succeed Carlaw by ‘coronation’. Ross’s two General Election victories are overshadowed as battle honours by his prompt, courageous and conspicuous denunciation of Dominic Cummings over the Barnard Castle lockdown breach affair, in a moment when moral authority seeped directly from the uneasily taciturn Carlaw to Ross. No. 10 did Ross the further favour of dismissing him as ‘Mr. Nobody’. He is thus well placed to represent another attempt at the Ruth Davidson way of doing things – a distinct identity, a ladleful of bolshy charisma, Scottish and Conservative rather than just the Tory leader in Scotland.

Ross has the support, naturally, of Davidson herself, who has even agreed at Ross’ request to stand in for him at Holyrood as Tory leader until he gains his own seat there. His eleven other confirmed supporters at Holyrood include Michelle Ballantyne, a somewhat haphazard leadership candidate in February, and more significantly Adam Tomkins, possibly the most impressive intellectual figure among the Scottish Tories. As Davidson once was, so, the Scots Tory high command hopes, Ross might yet be – youthful, energetic and, conceivably, authentic.

Murdo Fraser is one of the few names being cast about with the potential to ‘make this interesting’, but it seems unlikely that he will take this rather daunting bait. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to wonder whether his Great Idea of 2011 – to disband the party and found a new Unionist one – will, or should, have its day sooner rather than later. The concept of Toryism was born in the late 17th century more than half Scottish: attached to religious episcopalianism, Catholicism and loyalty to the dynasty of the Stuarts. But this long story of the Scots Tories, Conservatives or Unionists deserves better than its current incarnation.

The saga of Davidson’s departure, the death-in-life or life-in-death Carlaw period, reveal a political party with its own heritage, culture and interests neutered by crippling subordinacy to the narrow sect of Johnsonism, all for the sake of retaining a worn-out badge. Why should a Davidson, a Fraser, or even a Ross, have to expend precious political capital on assuring Scottish voters they are nothing like their organisation’s London boss? Why not prove it and go the whole way?

A new party for old truths could yet invite heterogeneous and high-quality moderates in, not kick them out (Rory Stewart is the most obvious potential recruit in this category). It could resist independence as adeptly as possible, while adapting to the nationalist establishment’s dug-in narrative with nuance, intelligence and local nous.

Mr Fraser himself is on record as favouring an increasingly federalised Britain. In an age where English Conservative voters and their Prime Minister have little real feeling for the Union, devo-max, or indy-min – the destination towards which Cameron and Salmond appeared to be delicately dancing – might prove a more subtle and attractive defence of the UK than a simple-minded Unionism too easily mistaken for full English braying.

Recent (albeit nationalist-sponsored) polling reveals that the British tribe with the greatest emotional investment in the United Kingdom is, in fact, the Liberal Democrat Party. There are Unionist votes out there to be won, but which the current Scots Tory party are struggling to reach. A new anti-nationalist force north of the border would be free to demonstrate moderate, liberal-minded instincts alongside sensible, pragmatic Conservative economic policy. It could display openness to closer European ties, constitutional limberness, and sensitivity to Scottish identity, history and tradition. It would deploy broad-church, talented, and untainted personnel, able to speak to voters currently afloat in political limbo.

All these conditions once met, such a movement might yet provide Scotland with what it desperately requires – and what both the Conservatives and Labour seem so comically distant from offering: an alternative Scottish Government.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Minoo Dinshaw is the author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman, and is writing a history of political moderates in the run-up to the 17th century British civil wars.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.